The DC-8 bound for West Africa carried a company of American soul, gospel, rock and jazz greats, including Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner, Santana, Roberta Flack, the Staple Singers, Eddie Harris and Les McCann. A Hammond B3 organ and a Leslie amplifier were packed into first-class because the luggage hold was at capacity. The passenger section was so thick with laughter and pot smoke that one passenger later quipped, “That plane could’ve flown itself.”
With 130 artists, moviemakers, roadies and journalists on board, the journey began March 1, 1971, at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. A few days later, the artists were to perform what would turn out to be a 13-hour concert at historic Black Star Square in Accra, Ghana’s capital city, next to the Atlantic Ocean, on the 14th anniversary of the nation’s independence from colonial rule.
The Soul to Soul concert turned out to be a watershed event not just for an African nation hungry to experience Western music firsthand, but for the performers themselves.
The Soul to Soul concert turned out to be a watershed event not just for an African nation hungry to experience Western music firsthand, but for the performers themselves, many of whom were making their first trip to what some of them called the “motherland.” It would also be their first face-to-face encounter with their musical counterparts in Africa, some of whom would share the stage with them. A terrific array of local acts captured attention, from the guitar-based funkiness of the youthful city kids in the Psychedelic Aliens to the show-stealing Amoah Azangeo, a rural witch doctor who pounded, shook and shimmied with a calabash, a basketball-sized percussion instrument.
Yet a number of artists arrived in Ghana with little or no knowledge of the continent other than the dubious perceptions painted by Hollywood movies. For these performers, Africa was the land of “Tarzan” and jungle savages, a primitive place with which they had little in common. “I don’t know nothing about Africa, period. Still don’t,” said Ike Turner, as if this were just another gig. A few members of Pickett’s band shrugged off the opportunity and stayed home because they didn’t want to undertake such a long trip for a single paying gig.
Others saw it as a rite of passage. “For half the people, the reason we all went was to reconnect with what we thought was our ancestral background,” McCann said.
Though they may not have fully realized it on the way over to Ghana, the African-American contingent of musicians and singers were about to participate in something more than a concert at an exotic location. In many ways, what they experienced was a transformation. And it began to take shape and crystalize in the streets and beaches of Ghana before the first notes were even struck on March 6, 1971.
The once-boisterous passenger section of the DC-8 grew silent as the plane approached its destination, as if the artists were bracing to confront an inescapable truth: Many of their ancestors had come to America from this country against their will in centuries past, sold as slaves. It was no small coincidence that Ghana itself was now in many ways going through the kind of social and political upheaval that accompanied the birth of the United States.
In 1957 Ghana had declared independence from Great Britain; it became the first African country to become a self-contained state in modern times. Guiding this transition into a new era was Kwame Nkrumah, who advocated Pan-Africanism as a way to bring the Third World continent closer to economic parity with the West and link it with people of African heritage worldwide. For some key African-American activists and cultural icons involved in the civil-rights struggle, Ghana was viewed as a kind of sister country, a spiritual home. Author Maya Angelou had been advocating for a trans-national concert in Ghana for years as a symbol of this shared history.
But Nkrumah was deposed in 1966, and in the coup’s wake the meaning of “freedom” in post-colonial Ghana took on bitter new meaning. Among other things, the country’s post-Nkrumah rulers proved less receptive to the idea of a concert than their predecessor. Angelou persisted, and then a 1970 performance by James Brown in neighboring Nigeria thawed the ice. An ambitious father-son team, Ed and Tom Musk, with connections in the entertainment and filmmaking worlds, got the go-ahead to stage a one-day festival at Black Star Square, an edifice built by Nkrumah in 1957 to commemorate independence.
At the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, the musicians were greeted by cheering, costumed locals on the tarmac and airport-terminal rooftop. Several passengers descended the airplane’s steps and kissed the ground, out of respect for their hosts. The festive atmosphere extended to the hotel, where the musicians dined on pepper soup, palm-nut stew and joloff rice, and danced with the townspeople, while attentive gecko lizards gawked at them. Most of the visitors tried to adapt to the new diet, participate in the dances and fit in with the locals.
Despite some awkward encounters, many of the artists were struck by the commonality they felt between their families back home and the Africans they encountered going about their daily lives. “I felt like I was seeing my relatives everywhere,” Mavis Staples once said. “I used to watch my grandmother take a twig from a tree and bite it up or dip it in her snuff. She called it a ‘chew stick.’ And I saw this woman on the ferry doing just what grandma did. It was like flashing back to your own childhood in another country.”
Some of the artists toured one of the slave castles along the Ghanaian coast and saw firsthand the dungeons where Africans were shackled while awaiting trans-Atlantic transport to America and the Caribbean. “These were thick, brick walls…these shackles were still in the stone,” Staples recalled. Her great-grandfather, William Staples, was a slave, and family lore spoke of William being shot while trying to escape his plantation and later bullwhipped. He survived and lived to be 103.
“I saw where they took slaves like grandpa, who opposed being enslaved,” Staple Singers founder Roebuck “Pops” Staples once said. “Those slaves would be tied with a rope on their arms, like handcuffs. There was something like a railroad spike driven in the wall over the door. We were told that they would hang them there until they got weak. Only then, they would cut them down. The hole had the smell of death.”
Because of their deep connection to the Civil Rights Movement, the Staple Singers understood the gravity of what a trip to Africa would represent. The group would return to perform in South Africa a few years later, including a rare desegregated performance at a soccer stadium. In contrast, Tina Turner arrived in Ghana completely unprepared for what she would find. Each day brought a fresh eye-opening revelation, but nothing quite prepared her for what she would discover at the slave castle.
Turner offered a detailed and vivid recollection of what she experienced in an early ‘70s interview, as if she were describing a scene out of a horror movie: “They kept women on one side of a room this big (20 by 30 feet). The only light was three holes at the top. A lot of them got diseases from the dampness of the sea; it formed a sort of crust on the wall. They had to live in all that filth; there were no bathrooms, no nothing. Like just women over here and men over there — the men in a much larger room — and they’d open the door so they could ‘multiply,’ as they call it, in all that filth. It was really something to see where you came from — where it all began.”
The most searing moment in ‘Soul to Soul’ occurs not on stage, but as Mavis Staples recalls her journey to the slave dungeons.
The most searing moment in “Soul to Soul” occurs not on stage, but as Mavis Staples recalls her journey to the slave dungeons. For her and a number of her compatriots, this voyage to the slave dungeons in a faraway land left an imprint on their consciousness that they would never be able to erase.
“That was the most sorrowful and heavy-laden (experience)…tears would well in your eyes,” she says. “There was an eerie, eerie feeling. Sometimes late at night you could hear the moans and groans coming through there. Their spirits are still here.”
More than a century after the slave trade had ended, the Africans in the audience and the African Americans on stage in “Soul to Soul” found themselves still united not just by music but a shared history of oppression. In Ghana, its residents remained in an ongoing fight to shake off the vestiges of colonialism under a shifting array of rulers. In America, civil rights remained an unkept promise for many citizens of color. The music, intended as celebration, was also an acknowledgment that the struggle was far from over.